I've been reading "The Invention of the Jewish People" by Shlomo Sand, an Israeli Jewish historian. Jews are very good at "deconstructing" the national narratives of other peoples. They delight in explaining how the cherished sense they have of themselves is really a myth. The impression that tends to be left by these Oriental "debunkings" is that Jews are the only real people, and that all other "peoples", at least European ones, are just a formless mass of lumpengoyim who delude themselves with fantastical, made-up stories about their own greatness and distinctiveness. For the first time, Sand systematically applies the critical sensibility for which Jews are renowned to the story of the Jewish people themselves.
The focus of his book is on deconstructing the idea Jews have that they have remained an ethnically pure people since ancient times. It has a lot of interesting content and I'll be writing more about it in future. For now, though, I want to focus on the extent to which it corroborates one of the enduring themes of this blog: the close connection between Jews and Muslims.
Sand convincingly demonstrates that the notion of Exile - the idea that Jews were dispossessed of their homeland and expelled from it - is a fantasy. The Exile referred to in the ancient texts was a spiritual one, a sense of estrangement from God, not a physical expulsion of people from a specific place. Over the centuries, Jews have nurtured the belief that they were subject to mass expulsion by the Romans following the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus in AD 70. Sand shows that this idea - which constituted almost the defining element of Jewish peoplehood in much the same way that the Holocaust narrative does now - was a fraud and a fantasy. There was no such expulsion. Jews had already been living in a far-flung diaspora even before war with the Romans. But this historical falsehood is one that Jews cherish and occasionally cite to justify their anti-Europeanism, the idea being that "You Europeans got us when the Romans destroyed our temple and expelled us so we're entitled to get our own back on you." Of course, it's very rare that a Jew will say this publicly, but you can occasionally observe it in comment sections and the like where they will be honest in their anonymity.
Some Jewish historians, realising that there was no expulsion after the Roman conquest in the first century AD and thus no Exile, have moved to the fallback position of an Exile following the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD. Sand shows that this position is no more sustainable than the first. What he has to say about this is particularly interesting in relation to the historical and present-day reality of a Muslim-Jewish alliance against Christians and Europeans. Besides serving as a kind of proto-Holocaust catastrophe myth that bound Jews together in a shared fantasy of Woe, the functional importance of the Exile myth lay in the explanation it provided for an undisputed historical fact: that Jews at some point ceased to be a majority in Israel and Muslims became the new majority. The Expulsion and Exile narrative neatly explicates this. But when that narrative is shown to be false, and the alternative explanation of mass Muslim migration is likewise rejected, only one - (for Jews) terrible and disturbing - conclusion is left to be drawn: the Jews converted to Islam.
In the text below, remember that "Ishmaelite" means "Muslim".
Baer, Dinur and other Zionist historians were not mistaken in stating that this significant Jewish presence was drastically reduced following the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, but this was not due to the uprooting of Jews from the country, for which there is no shred of evidence in the historical record. Palestine, the former Judea, was not swept by masses of migrants from the Arabian Desert who dispossessed the indigenous inhabitants. The conquerors had no such policy, and neither exiled nor expelled the Judean agrarian population, whether they believed in Yahweh or in the Christian Trinity.
The Muslim army that swept like a typhoon out of Arabia and conquered the region between 638 and 643 CE was a relatively small force. The largest estimate of its strength is forty-six thousand troops, and the bulk of this army was later sent on to other fronts on the borders of the Byzantine Empire. While the troops stationed in the conquered country brought in their families, and probably seized land so as to settle them there, this could hardly have made for a serious change in the population. It might have reduced some of the residents to tenant farming. Moreover, the Arab conquest interrupted the thriving commerce around the Mediterranean, leading to a gradual demographic decline in the region, but there is no evidence that this decrease led to the replacement of a people.
One of the secrets of the Muslim army’s power was its relatively liberal attitude toward the religions of the defeated people—provided they were monotheists, of course. Muhammad’s commandment to treat Jews and Christians as “people of the Book” gave them legal protection. The Prophet stressed in a famous letter to the army commanders in southern Arabia: “Every person, whether a Jew or a Christian, who becomes a Muslim is one of the Believers, with the same rights and duties. Anyone who clings to his Judaism or Christianity is not to be converted and must [pay] the poll tax incumbent upon every adult, male or female, free or bond.” No wonder that the Jews, who had suffered harsh persecution under the Byzantine Empire, welcomed the new conquerors and even rejoiced at their success. Jewish and Muslim testimonies show that they helped the victorious Arab forces.
An irreparable split had occurred between Judaism and Christianity by the latter’s division of the deity, which aggravated the rivalry between them. The gulf was widened by the myth of the murder of the Son of God, which intensified the mutual hatred. Triumphant Christianity’s attempts to suppress Judaism made things worse. By contrast, although Muhammad fought against the Jewish tribes in the Arabian Peninsula—one of them was exiled to Jericho—the advent of Islam was viewed by many as a liberation from persecution and even as a possible future fulfillment of the messianic promise. Rumors about the rise of a new prophet in the desert spread and heartened many Jewish believers, especially as Muhammad presented himself as a successor of earlier prophets, not as a divinity. The seventh-century Armenian bishop Sebeos described the Arab conquest of Palestine as the descendants of Ishmael coming to the aid of the descendants of Isaac against the Byzantine Empire, in fulfillment of God’s promise to their common ancestor Abraham. A contemporary Jew wrote in a letter:
God it was who inspired the Ishmaelite kingdom to aid us. When they spread forth and captured the Land of the Hind from the hand of Edom, and reached Jerusalem, there were Israelites among them. They showed them the place of the Temple, and have dwelled with them to this day. They made it a condition that they preserve the place of the Temple from any abomination, and would pray at its gates, and none would gainsay them.
This description of a joint conquest may have been an exaggeration, but other sources testify that some Judean fugitives who had escaped the oppressions of the Byzantine Empire returned with the victorious army. Under Islam, Jews were allowed to enter the holy city, which even awakened secret dreams of rebuilding the Temple: “The Ishmaelite kings treated them with kindness, allowing Israelites to come to the house and there build a prayer house and a study house. All the Israelite congregations near the house would go thither on holy days and festivals and pray therein.”
The new conquerors had an extraordinary system of taxation: Muslims did not have to pay any taxes; only the unbelievers did. Given the benefits of Islamization, it is not surprising that the new religion quickly attracted great numbers of converts. Exemption from taxation must have been seen as worth a change of deity, especially as he seemed so much like the former one. In fact, the caliphs’ taxation policy had to be modified later, as the mass conversion to Islam by the conquered populations threatened to drain their treasury.
Did the similarity between the religions, Islam’s relative tolerance toward the other monotheisms, and the religious system of taxation induce Jewish, Christian and Samaritan believers to convert to Islam? Historical logic would say yes, though there are insufficient sources to provide a definitive answer. The traditional Jewish elites were pained by the apostasy, and tended to ignore and suppress it. Zionist historiography followed them, turning its back on any meaningful discussion of the issue. Abandoning the Jewish religion was generally interpreted by modern sensibilities as betraying the “nation,” and was best forgotten.
During the Byzantine period, despite the persecutions, a good many synagogues were built. But after the Arab conquest, construction gradually came to an end, and Jewish prayer houses grew scarcer. It is reasonable to assume that a slow, moderate process of conversion took place in Palestine/Land of Israel, and accounted for the disappearance of the Jewish majority in the country.
Another extract showing Judaic memes gave rise to the monstrous offspring of Mohammedanism.
Before the advent of Islam, in the era called in Arab historiography “the age of ignorance”—in the fourth or early fifth century CE—Jews settled in Taima, Khaybar and Yathrib (later named Medina), in the heart of the Hejaz. Not long before the rise of Islam, Judaism began to make its way into the powerful tribes that inhabited these centers. The best known of these, because Muhammad clashed with them early in his campaign, were the Qaynuqa, the Quraiza and the Nadhir in the region of Yathrib. But tribes in Taima and Khaybar—Arabic-speaking and bearing typical local names—had also converted to Judaism. The atmosphere among these Judaizers may be deduced from the late description by the Arab historian Abd Allah al-Bakri, who lived in the eleventh century and wrote, concerning a tribe in Taima, that the tribesmen “were prevented by the Jews from entering their fort as long as they professed another religion, and only when they embraced Judaism were they admitted.”
The spread of Jewish monotheism, which was not yet rabbinical, must have helped prepare the spiritual ground for the rise of Islam. Although the new religion clashed strongly with its precursor, the Qur’an testifies to the crucial role played by Judaism’s ideological preparation. The Muslim holy book contains various phrases, stories and legends taken from the Old Testament and flavored with local imagination. From the Garden of Eden to the Shekhinah, through the tales of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, to the messages of David and Solomon, who are called prophets, echoes of the Old Testament are heard throughout the Qur’an (though it does not mention the great prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, and, of the later ones, only Zechariah and Jonah). Judaism was not the only religion that penetrated the Arabian Peninsula—Christianity also contended for believers, successfully in some places, though ultimately the Holy Trinity was not absorbed into the Muslim canon. Furthermore, in the territory between these two well-defined religions were some lively syncretic sects, such as the Hanifs, all of which contributed to the bubbling crucible from which the new monotheism sprang.